It didn’t take long for Donald Webber Jr. to hear about the hardships endured by residents of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, the monster storm that ravaged the island in late 2017.
The taxi driver who picked up the actor at the San Juan airport told Webber that he and his family had lived without power for more than seven months, and they had to walk miles each day just to get water.
“It really puts things into perspective as to why we’re here, and the importance of being here,” Webber said on the afternoon before he took the stage as Aaron Burr in the opening of “Hamilton” in Puerto Rico. The musical’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has brought his hit to San Juan for a three-week run, and producers have said 100% of profits — an expected $15 million — will go to relief efforts on the island.
Webber sat in a small meeting room at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, a few short blocks from the 2,000-seat Centro de Bellas Artes Luis A. Ferré theater, where the show will run through Jan. 27. Sitting to his right was Julia K. Harriman, who plays Eliza Hamilton. They possess the easy rapport of artists who have seen each other at their best — and worst — during a grueling rehearsal process. Their banter goes from serious to silly in milliseconds, and they clearly are blown away by where they are, and what they are doing.
It’s not every day, after all, that actors find themselves selected to play opposite a Broadway legend like Miranda, who is reprising his titular character after stepping down in 2016 (and seeing his Broadway production win 11 Tony Awards).
To say that Webber and Harriman were intimidated would be a vast understatement.
“I was terrified,” Harriman recalled. “He wrote the show. He knows exactly how he wants this. He knows the words to the songs I might be messing up.”
But then Miranda arrived for rehearsals — a few weeks later than the rest of the cast, thanks to his press tour with “Mary Poppins Returns,” in which he plays the quirky lamplighter, Jack — and all their fears were allayed.
He’s a “goofball,” Harriman said. One who places a premium on knowing everyone’s name, and on making sure that everyone in the room feels loved, valued and comfortable. He’s also a remarkably generous performer, Webber said. A team player. Just look at his Twitter feed, they both said.
(If you do, you’ll likely encounter something like this, dated Jan. 13: “Gnight. A fervent hope that you get every moment you need tonight: a moment of rest, a moment of grace, a moment of epiphany, a moment to plan, a moment entirely yours and no one else’s.”)
Beyond Miranda’s congenial persona and Puerto Rican pride (his father is from the island, and Miranda spent his summers as a child in its blue waters), he’s a savant who has his brain wrapped up in so many aspects of “Hamilton” that he can be forgetful at times.
Webber recalls a private rehearsal with just the two of them when Miranda started rapping a song that was completely unrecognizable.
“We had to stop and he goes, ‘Oh, I was doing the first draft of ‘Hamilton,’ ” Webber said, smiling and shaking his head. “Somehow, some way, his brain had gone into his first draft of the scene, and I’m sitting there like, ‘Wow, what if this happens.’ ”
“It’s not him you have to worry about, it’s us,” she said.
Except neither had to worry, really. On opening night, the “Hamilton” cast received a standing ovation so loud, prolonged, uproarious and fanatical that Miranda later said in a news conference that he could feel his hair blowing back.
“I’ll never forget it,” he said.
Jared Miller, husband of Sara Elisa Miller, who is the Miranda family’s director of philanthropy, said the actors were feeding off of Miranda’s enthusiasm. “Their passion is for what’s happening on this island,” he said. “This is Puerto Rico trying to prove to the rest of the world — and the country — ‘Don’t forget about me, I’m still here, I’m not throwing away my shot.’ ”